I need to talk about something said to me recently by someone in the academic world, when they assumed that I had been doing “more physical than intellectual work” over the prior months. I cannot seem to shake this comment; it has been months, and it’s still on my mind. I suppose that’s when you know you’re staring down potential blog material.
The point of contention here is the implication that physical work and intellectual work are mutually exclusive. While that may not have been what the speaker consciously meant, I think it’s a fit reading of the moment, implicit in the comment. But it also occurred to me that maybe I was just a little too sensitive. To test my theory, I repeated this to several men that I had worked with at a concrete plant over the summer.
From the mechanic: immediate recognition and reference to the office workers who only talk to or are nice to the mechanics when they need something. At all other times, they walk on by. From another truck driver: more immediate recognition and subsequent conversation about the ways in which people think there’s nothing to this work, when doing it safely and successfully requires you be on your toes, all the time.
Okay, so it wasn’t just me. Now what?
I spent the summer working at this concrete plant as a truck driver. I am a very experienced truck driver, but when I started this job, I knew nothing about concrete except that it gets hard and that it does this pretty quickly. I had never hauled it before. And over the course of the summer, every day, I was reminded of what a dunce I was in this arena, watching construction crews work with this stuff, learning more about the ins and outs of hauling it from experienced drivers, discovering there actually was a science to the making of concrete, as well as many, many different “types” and mixes, all of it. There’s a lot to know. A lot to know. I could spend pages on it: if you want to know the details, I’d be happy to tell you over coffee.
Is it physical work? Of course. I would come home many nights and collapse on the couch, my body wrecked from this new set of movements, from climbing in and out of the truck much more than I ever did as a semi driver, from crawling up and down the back of the truck many times over during the course of just one load, and I could haul anywhere from 4 to 8 loads a day. The lifting and carrying of fifty-pound chutes on my shoulder, the slinging of a three-pound sledge to break up dried concrete on the truck: the job was unquestionably physically exhausting.
But can we count it as intellectual labor?
This is the question I’ve struggled with for months. If you look up the dictionary definition of intellect, which I’ll spare you here, I think you can say yeah, this fits. But that’s a simplification. We are certainly not practiced - we would certainly likely resist - thinking of construction workers as practitioners of intellectual labor. Yet truck drivers, constructions crews, and concrete finishers all possess a highly specific knowledge of their trade. The fact that they work in what we call a “trade” doesn’t imply, from my observations, an absence of smarts. It’s just a different kind of knowledge than an “intellectual” has. Academics are intellectuals, and we are rigorously trained to be exceptionally knowledgeable in a particular field, and to specialize within that. Is that different from a concrete finisher?
In many obvious ways, it is. You can get trained pretty cheaply to lay concrete: just get someone to give you a job, then show up with a good attitude and a few cheap tools. It’s easy work to access, with little or no formal education. And of course, construction work doesn’t hold the cultural cachet that being a professor does: Bourdieu would map the cultural capital of the two as polar opposites, and with that comes a large power differential.
Or, when we say intellectual work, do we mean something different, more general perhaps - just the capacity for deep thinking? What is that, exactly? And how will we ever know who does it and who doesn’t? The only way we might measure this is by output: you’d have to have a conversation with someone (and be qualified to assess the result, assuming we could ever fairly gauge who’s qualified), or see some sort of creative work, I guess, to verify that these deep thoughts are being produced. I suppose we can all see the impossibility and ludicrousness of that.
As I wrestle with writing this it occurs to me: why am I so bound up in choosing one over the other? Why does this comment bother me so much? Because intellectualism is prioritized in this country (for I can only really speak about this country)? Would everyone agree with that? Several of my co-workers were extremely supportive of my graduate education, constantly admiring my (according to them) accomplishments and drive. But there were also plenty of times I got rolling about a book or theory or something, and they looked at me like I might just be a little batty. One might read that as a lack of comprehension on their part. Or, one might read that as bemusement. Or something else.
To begin his text Homo Academicus, Bourdieu writes: “In choosing to study the social world in which we are involved, we are obliged to confront, in dramatized form as it were, a certain number of fundamental epistemological problems, all related to the question of the difference between practical knowledge and scholarly knowledge, and particularly to the special difficulties involved first in breaking with inside experience and then in reconstituting the knowledge which has been obtained by the means of this break [emphasis his]”
(1). Bourdieu concerns himself with the positions of academics within society, which involves, of course, an attempt at radical self-awareness and objectivity to critique the very position one holds, with resources and a lens made credible by the very cultural forces that allow the position to go unquestioned (more or less) in the first place. To answer questions about this divide between physical and intellectual work, we must be willing to implicate ourselves and admit, for example, the discussing novels might in many contexts seems quite ridiculous to people, and might indeed be ridiculous.
As we invest money, time, identity - our entire lives, really - into our professions, we become more knowledgeable and specialized, but also lose or become closed to an equal amount of knowledge. Perhaps this is unavoidable as we choose the roles we’d like to take in our future lives. Bourdieu continues, “We are aware of the obstacles to scientific knowledge constituted as much by excessive proximity as by excessive remoteness, and we know how difficult it is to sustain that relation of a proximity broken and then restored, which requires much hard work, not only on the object of our research, but also on ourselves as researchers, if we are to reconcile everything we can know only as insiders, and everything we cannot or do not wish to know as long as we do remain insiders”
(1). Here is the crux: what do we willfully ignore from a comfortable position as a so-named intellectual insider?
Those were two theory-heavy paragraphs: let’s take a breath for a moment and consider the following, again imagining a physically-intense work environment that is potentially light on critical intellectual work. In my academic studies, I’ve spent many classes both as a student and teacher talking and thinking about issues relating to ethnicity and gender. We theorize and discuss this to death, as we absolutely should. In my summer work life, I witnessed this stuff played out right in front of me, every day. I watched and listened to how people react to me as a woman in a male-dominated field; I certainly dealt occasionally with problems when people disrespected me (and felt them acutely, painfully). I’ve also seen and listened to my co-workers - my friends - tell tales of the garbage they deal with all the time. The ways my black, Latino, and Middle Eastern co-workers are discriminated against, or have been, are shocking to me. Why am I shocked, beyond the continual surprise of people’s capacity for hatred? This is what we theorize about, actually happening. The problem is, or has been for me in the past, that sitting in the classroom necessarily sometimes prevents us from actually seeing it. You cannot be two places at once. And of course, when you are a person on the receiving end of this kind of constant abuse, you are able to theorize and talk quite intelligently about it your own self. When I talk about texts dealing with racism or marginalization, many men I work with understand it perfectly, and have a life-time’s amount of information to share on the subject. So here is the same type of intellectual labor, if not entirely more nuanced, being exchanged at places many of us might consider lacking in such activity. How many break room conversations have I witnessed, its participants navigating the choices of what-to-do and how-to-deal after another incident of a racial slur, bullying, objectification. I am reminded of a moment in a graduate seminar where the instructor introduced Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed. The professor gave us some background: Sandoval a student of Jameson’s, who found nothing shocking in his theories of a postmodern crisis of technology and globalization. Oppressed and colonized peoples had already been dealing with this for centuries…not a new problem at all.
It’s through Sandoval that we can work back to this dualism of the physical versus the intellectual, work versus thought. Her solution to oppression is working through a process of love, which sounds simple to us, perhaps, because we are used to thinking of love narrowly defined. But Sandoval introduces the idea of revolutionary love by talking of Barthes’s “third approach to loving,” which transcends the usual dualism of “I love or I don’t.” She explains this third option as “‘drifting . . . the movement of meanings that will not be governed . . . the intractable itself as it permeates through, in, and outside of power.” Quoting Barthes, Sandoval continues: “Drifting occurs ‘whenever I do not respect the whole,’ the social scripts that name, drive, and impel us all through ‘love’ - through life” (143). I think that’s a mic drop from Barthes and Sandoval both. Getting stuck in a binary won’t get us anywhere.
I should have put this disclaimer upfront. I’m certainly not claiming the academia isn’t necessary. It’s a critical part of my life: it’s allowing me to write this blog, for one. And it’s a really important part of our world and community. I also don’t want to ignore the fact that I think the inverse of my subject is true too: “intellectual work” can also be physical. Every muscle in your body might not hurt at the end of the day, but it can drain you and wear you down, causing you to collapse on the couch at the end of the day. No doubt.
I’m just saying that…or I’m just working through…well, it seems we have a lot to lose by classifying and naming in the particular ways we often do. As we drive or walk by construction crews re-making our downtown, or repaving our city streets, or pouring new sidewalks and floors for restaurants, sports arenas, or shopping centers we will soon enjoy, I argue there’s a lot at work there beyond the mere bodies, dressed in safety orange or yellow (and consider why), although the work of the body shouldn’t be ignored either, the toll the work will take on it a measurable sacrifice over the course of a lifetime. We are too used to thinking “I do this, or I do that” or rather “you do this, or that.” The term “drifting” is a scary one as most of us have spent out lives trying to do anything but, but as a way to break down the power structures reinforced when we casually label, well. Drifting seems like a desirable goal.
Keep working through it with me.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Homo Academicus.1984. Translated by Peter Collier. Stanford UP, 1988.
Sandoval, Chela. Methodology of the Oppressed. U of Minnesota P, 2000.
Image 1: "Cement Masons and Concrete Finishers." lcobbconstruction.com
Image 2: "Cement Truck in Action." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_7Rcc71msgg